On Vaginas and Earthworks
Essay on Judy Dater's photograph Self-Portrait with Sparkler (1981), on view at di Rosa, written for Art Practical, May 12, 2015.
In 1981 Judy Dater stood at the edge of a crater, her naked body exposed, her legs astride. Behind her, what first looks like land but turns out to be water stretches in an uninterrupted, unstable expanse. Mountains wrap the distant skyline, the geologic inverse of a hole in the ground. Her stance should be precarious, located as she is where land becomes water, where the earth opens into a yawn. But Dater stands resolute, her posed limbs forming two stacked triangles connected at their points. Thin follicles of light travel between her thighs, punctuating the tip of her pubic hair, immaterial flickers from beyond.
In Self-Portrait with Steam Vent (1981), which she later renamed Self-Portrait with Sparkler, on view at di Rosa, Dater’s female figure lords over a dusty gray cone. Her face is obscured by hair and shadow, and what might be sunlight but is actually the fiery light emitted from a sparkler, the kind you hold in your hand on the Fourth of July, comes through her legs. Despite all the other things in the photograph—the changing light on the water, the cavernous hole before her, the thin black line at the mountains’ base—those sparks are the work’s focal point, existing as they do somewhere between illumination and ignition. The entire photo perches there, between.
The steam vent is at the edge of Yellowstone Lake, in Yellowstone National Park, a landscape dotted with fissures where geothermal activity normally kept below rises up. Steam and gases escape, like whistles in the ground. Situated on a thirty-by-forty-five-mile caldera created by a volcanic eruption, the park is home to ten thousand geothermal features: hot springs and mud pots, geysers and steam vents (also known as fumaroles, like the one Dater stands on). People sometimes fall into these boiling chambers; nearly two dozen have done so and died. This is a landscape dangerous and contradictory, where eruptions result in depressions and holes produce steam, gas, and lava.
In this place of contrast and implication, Dater has inserted her naked body. Emphasizing its triangular form, she stands with splayed legs that narrow into a black dome of hair. She appears not as an interruption of her environment but as a continuation of it, an extension of the peaked cone on which she stands. Incorporated as such, she adds to the chain of associations her surroundings have initiated. Her body, pubic hair framed at the photo’s center, both alludes to and dissuades the most misogynist of tropes—the notion that a woman is a hole, can only ever be a hole that needs to be filled. Though Dater thematically and visually reinforces this equation, she reimagines its terms. In this setting, holes are generative, not voids but incubators. It is evident from the steam that escapes from the crater, in the fiery light that seems to emanate from the artist’s own vagina.
A prolific and still practicing photographer, Dater is known for both her self-portraits and portraits of others. In the 1960s, she photographed the men but primarily the women she met while living in the Haight-Ashbury. Pictured in domestic spaces, draped in scarves of velvet and dresses of cotton, her subjects seem haloed in light: eyes enlarged, pupils deep, their cheeks and foreheads ethereal. Dater acknowledges that her compositional style in such works owes to Julia Margaret Cameron’s intimate and luminous framing of her subjects. Dater’s most famous work is Imogen Cunningham and Twinka, Yosemite (1974), a portrait of Cunningham, her photographic mentor, encountering a nymphlike woman in a redwood forest. From 1980 to 1983, Dater took ten trips to national parks in the American West and Southwest, where she created several self-portraits, including Self-Portrait with Sparkler. She later said that it was within these landscapes that she confronted “the burden of establishment-dominated (i.e., male) artistic conventions and sensibility.”1
Though in a different media, Dater’s self-portrait can be viewed alongside the work of the 1960s Land artists who altered and manipulated the environments they worked within. Artists such as Robert Smithson and Walter de Maria left their mark on the land in the form of spiral jetties and lightning rod–punctured fields, respectively. In these monuments, the artists’ creative powers are omniscient while their bodies go unseen. Embodied and serene, Dater’s portrait offers a contrast. She camouflages herself within her landscape, mimicking and mirroring rather than disrupting it: Dater’s female form is rendered as organic as the crater or lake beside her. Such a holistic relationship counters the hierarchical model favored by many Land artists; it could even be read as a feminist response.
Self-Portrait with Sparkler also finds context in the work of second-wave feminist artists of the 1970s, who made art that explicitly referenced their bodies as a way of reclaiming their identities and representations. Featuring vaginal imagery, menstrual blood, and references to goddesses, such artworks offered a simplified but necessary version of womanhood that sought to dismantle taboos and correct art historical oversights. Judy Chicago’s Menstruation Bathroom (1972) involved a bathroom stocked with feminine hygiene products and a garbage can filled with used tampons, celebrating not only the idea of menstruation but the physicality of menstrual blood. Carolee Schneeman also activated the female body, imagining it as a site of production and narrative through the unfurling of a tightly rolled scroll from her vagina in Interior Scroll (1975). Comparatively subtle, Dater’s photograph similarly locates the vagina as a place of genesis.
Another work by Dater, also in the collection of di Rosa, reflects a contemporaneous theme in feminist artwork: the use of portraiture to critique gender’s constructed nature and the artificiality of the identities women are often forced to adopt. Reminiscent of Cindy Sherman’s photographic roleplaying, Dater’s Ms. Clingfree (1982) is both a self-portrait and a character study. In it, she acts as the beguiling maid, wearing lipstick even as she prepares to clean. Straining to both be sexy and perform labor, she is mediocre at both. In her arms she clutches an unrealistic amount of cleaning implements, while her maid’s outfit hangs awkward and unkempt. Her setting highlights the portrait’s artificiality, as curtains of satin cascade down as though parted on either side of a stage.
Both Ms. Clingfree and Self-Portrait with Sparkler mingle with female archetypes—sexy housekeeper and earth goddess, respectively—but they do so to different ends. The former offers a bitter critique, while the latter seeks an earnest celebration. Superimposed, the two images reveal the limitations and possibilities of essentialism. A facile logic seems to result: When such traits are imposed from without, they are harmful; when they are summoned from within, they are not. A less dogmatic reading might settle somewhere not as extreme, addressing strategies of employment: When the projected traits are the result of cultural oppression or are used to uphold unequal power structures, they can function as a trap. When the embrace of certain archetypes is used to counter a cultural omission or misconception, it can be utterly effective.